Is removing pubic hair modern or did historical cultures engage in the practice?
Pubic hair, growing in the lower abdomen just above the genitalia, in the pubis area. Not to be confused with legs, armpits or facial hair though for those who prefer to be hair free all the types can become simply hair areas. This unpopular hair creates smells which are sexually enticing to our partners so why do we remove it? More specifically, why is it so widespread amongst women in P o r n. Did this practice only emerge in the modern era or has it been a standard enforced on women for the last few centuries?
Luckily for us, there are a few sources that discuss this, my favourite one being the famed poems of Ovid – which we know today as the Art of Love. Also luckily, I happen to have a solid translation of books 2 and 3 handy. We’ll be looking specifically at book 3, section 4: “Make-up, but in private,” which begins with the lovely lines:
How near I was to warning you, no rankness of the wild goat under your armpits, no legs bristling with harsh hair!
Considering that The Art of Love is essentially a mock guide for teaching men and women how to get laid (emphasis here: it’s satirical), it’s got some hilarious stuff in there, if you want to give it a read 🙂 However, this small section already does note that Roman women did distinguish themselves with depilation, and the most common ways they would accomplish this was with either plucking (generally with tweezers, eyebrows were also plucked), razors (not always the most desirable option, because the razors of the time had the unlucky tendency of leaving lots of nicks), and, the biggest one, rubbing your skin with pumice to remove unwanted hair, which honestly also sounds incredibly uncomfortable. Being absolutely fair, I’ve never done it.
Their artwork just confirms this –
some ALL of the following being a bit NSFW (Quite a few of them are of people having sex in different positions).
Here’s a cowgirl scene. And another. And another. I’m sensing a theme here. This was pretty popular, that’s the theme. Oh, I suppose we could go on to missionary. And again, because creative. Another one? Okay, one more. How about a threesome? Flagellation? Oral? A topless lady? A depiction of pubic hair? (Okay fine, Priapus is cheating but hey). How about some popular art? Seriously though this was a popular scene. Are mosaics cheating?
If you click through those, there’s a pattern that does make itself clear – there’s no body hair on any of the women in question, which does lend itself to the idea of depilation.
So how about men? Well, we also have attestation for that, from multiple sources. The more entertaining one is gonna be Martial Epigrammata IX, 27: (quick translation):
You have epilated testicles, Chrestus, and a c o c k that’s like a vulture’s neck, and a head smoother than a prostitute’s ass, and there is not a single hair on your thighs, and merciless tweezers groom your bloodless lips. And you only talk about Curius, Camillus, Quintius, Numa, Ancus, and every sort of hairy thing that we might read about, and you are loud and threatening with grand words, and you argue with the theatres and with the present time. If some other butt-boy (sodomite) should come along, now that he’s free from his teacher, and whose throbbing c o c k has been unleashed by the artisan, you, calling him with a nod, lead him off; and Chrestus, it shames me to say what you do with your Catonian tongue.1
…ahem. Filthy Latin poetry aside, you get the idea. In slightly…tamer Latin, Suetonius gives lascivious accounts of Julius Caesar (of stabbity fame), giving a very specific nod to his….wanton ways:
He was somewhat overnice in the care of his person, being not only carefully trimmed and shaved, but even having superfluous hair plucked out, as some have charged; while his baldness was a disfigurement which troubled him greatly, since he found that it was often the subject of the gibes of his detractors. Because of it he used to comb forward his scanty locks from the crown of his head, and of all the honours voted him by the senate and people there was none which he received or made use of more gladly than the privilege of wearing a laurel wreath at all times. They say, too, that he was remarkable in his dress; that he wore a senator’s tunic with fringed sleeves reaching to the wrist, and always had a girdle over it, though rather a loose one; and this, they say, was the occasion of Sulla’s mot, when he often warned the nobles to keep an eye on the ill-girt boy.
Finally, the job of “hair plucker” was a literal job. Seneca mentions depilation a few times in his Moral Epistles. First off, in his letter that’s best summed up as “don’t treat your slaves like s**t. They’re people too.”
Another, who serves the wine, must dress like a woman and wrestle with his advancing years; he cannot get away from his boyhood; he is dragged back to it; and though he has already acquired a soldier’s figure, he is kept beardless by having his hair smoothed away or plucked out by the roots, and he must remain awake throughout the night, dividing his time between his master’s drunkenness and his lust; in the chamber he must be a man, at the feast a boy.
(A small reminder, Roman slavery was horrible. The above example is a small sample size of many, many horrors. Sen. Epistulae. 47.)
Then, in a slightly less grim context… (describing the noises that disturb the person who rents out an apartment above a bath – Ep. 57):
Then, perhaps, a professional a comes along, shouting out the score; that is the finishing touch. Add to this the arresting of an occasional roysterer or pickpocket, the racket of the man who always likes to hear his own voice in the bathroom, or the enthusiast who plunges into the swimming-tank with unconscionable noise and splashing. Besides all those whose voices, if nothing else, are good, imagine the hair-plucker with his penetrating, shrill voice,—for purposes of advertisement,—continually giving it vent and never holding his tongue except when he is plucking the armpits and making his victim yell instead. Then the cake-seller with his varied cries, the sausageman, the confectioner, and all the vendors of food hawking their wares, each with his own distinctive intonation.
So yeah, the Romans plucked, pruned, shaved, groomed, and did what they thought looked pretty. Grouchier conservative voices would squawk about how gay it was, and the youth would wholeheartedly agree, making gay jokes at each other while getting their armpits plucked.
If you have any questions, feel free to let me know!
Is it possible that the media of the day focused on hairless, much like p o r n of now does the same? How accurate might these depictions be to real life at the time, I wonder?
Thank you! 🙂 With regards to your question, it’s entirely possible – obviously, we don’t have nearly the amount of insight into the ancient world as we would love to (read: more than a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the things that were written and drawn). That being said, the first thing that comes to my mind (pardon my upcoming language) is a bit of graffiti from Pompeii (CIL 04, 3961):
Restutus / Restetuta / pone tunica(m) / rogo pudes / pilosa(m) c(nnum)
Restutus: Restetuta, drop your tunic – I want you to be ashamed of your hairy c u n t.
Woo, ancient catcalling. Just as fun as the modern stuff, but some guy thought it was funny to write this one out. Kinda like a bathroom stall, if you think about it. Pubic hair was certainly a thing, but from the very limited source material we have, it seems like….it came down to personal preference. There are plenty of “bush” references in Roman literature.
I am a little late to the party this time, but I want to give some insight about the situation regarding this issue in late 6th century/early 7th century Arabia. Removing pubic hair (and armpit hair) was considered very routine in Arabia at that time. Both for men and women.
Al-Bukhari narrated in his book (Hadith no.: 5889) and Muslim narrated in his book (Hadith no.: 257) that Prophet Muhammad (570 – 632 CE) (PBUH) said: “The natural instincts are five: circumcision, shaving pubic hair, cutting the mustache, cutting nails and plucking armpit hair.” So, it was not only thought to be something that is recommended religiously but it was looked upon as part of basic instinctual human hygiene.
Also, Al-Bukhari (5247) and Muslim (715) narrated that Jaber ibn Abdullah (died 697 CE) said: “We were once with the Prophet in a battle, and when we returned back to Medina, we went to enter (the city). The Prophet said: Let us wait and enter (the city) after nightfall, so that women with unkempt hair can have time to fix their hair, and those whose husbands were away can have time to shave their pubic hair.” We can deduce from that that it was routine for women to shave their pubic hair in preparation to meet their husbands.
Al-Bukhari (3989) also narrates a long story about a man called Khubaib ibn Adiy (died early 7th century) that has a part where he was captured by some non-muslim enemies, and they were about to kill him so he asked them to lend him a shaving razor, so that he can shave his pubic hair before they kill him, and they did lend him the razor. This can show that not only was it routine for men to shave their pubic hair, but it was also considered more dignified to die clean shaven.
On another note, most people used to pluck their armpit hair instead of shaving, although there has been reports that some people would find it very painful and would shave instead, but I’ll keep the sources for other time not to derail the main discussion.
>You might also be interested in an excellent monograph on the history of hair removal in the United States: Plucked: A History of Hair Removal by Rebecca Herzig. I read it cover to cover (something I never do with academic books!).
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